Map of core sampling at DP Road which was part of a presentation Friday afternoon by Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess at the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities virtual board meeting. Screen shot/Los Alamos Reporter
Map of DP Road showing property parcels discussed by Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess during a presentation for the RCLC virtual board meeting Friday afternoon. Screen shot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess gave the most comprehensive public briefing on the DP Road situation since hazardous waste was unearthed there in February when he spoke Friday during a virtual meeting of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.
In February, Los Alamos County began infrastructure work on DP Road across the street from the site of the Canyon Walk Apartments complex where it was planned to hook into an existing lifting station to transfer sewage to the County’s waste water treatment facility. While a local contractor was trenching in the area, he encountered some radioactive materials presumably left behind from the 2011 to 2016 when the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration conducted legacy waste cleanup at the site prior to turning the property over to Los Alamos County.
In response to a question from the Los Alamos Reporter, Burgess said a similar presentation has not yet been scheduled for a Los Alamos County Council meeting, but that he understands that would be a good thing to do. He said he had not prepared Friday’s presentation until he was asked to do so in light of the lack of availability of NNSA.
After Burgess’s presentation, the Los Alamos Reporter asked RCLC executive director Eric Vasquez how far ahead he had requested NNSA to provide someone to speak to the DP Road issue, noting that there was NNSA presence on the Zoom call for the meeting. Vasquez noted that NNSA had some individuals who could speak but it was decided that as the property belongs to Los Alamos County it’s their right to speak on it and they offered to assist with the technical resources if necessary”.
Burgess began by showing on two maps the various parcels of land on DP Road including A-8-B and A16A which have been transferred to Los Alamos County by the DOE over the years following cleanup conducted under a Stimulus Act passed in 1997. He noted that A-16-a is a fairly sizeable parcel and historically was known as Material Disposal Area B which was a waste area for early Los Alamos National Laboratory operations. At the end of the cleanup cycle, the document that is typically produced by NNSA under the Consent Order was reviewed by the New Mexico Environment Department and the property was determined to be “cleaned to residential use”, Burgess said.
A quit claim deed was issued and the County purchased insurance which it usually does for parcels transferred from LANL, he said.
“In the quit claim deed is language that preserves responsibility for any future hazardous materials associated with historic use that may be found on these properties. That liability is retained by the federal government. Basically, if we were ever to find anything on that property it is the federal government’s responsibility to clean it up,” Burgess said.
He pointed out that parcel A-8-b was also transferred to the County with the same conditions and reservations and is the site of a second future planned affordable housing site to be developed by the same developer as the Canyon Walk Apartments.
Burgess said the Canyon Walk site is fully under construction with stem walls and foundations already in place and terracing completed. He said the complex has been approved through the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority for some tax credits allowing the developer to obtain a level of financing that will allow him to offer them as affordable. Because of that, the property has to be developed within a certain time frame because if the tax credits are not utilized the state can award them to some future developer
“Canyon Walk Apartments under their current financing are required to complete their construction and obtain a certificate of occupancy by the end of this calendar year or they lose that financing. And that’s a big driver in what we’re trying to pursue here. In fact that’s what started the County’s construction on A-16-a,” Burgess said.
He went on to explain chronologically the events associated with the infrastructure work saying that when the County’s contractor was trenching from north to south, instead of finding dirt, he encountered some materials that were not consistent with what he expected, including some glass and ultimately a crucible.
“Upon discovery of these materials, the contractor stopped the excavation and called for some assistance with respect to identifying what this was and trying to determine what he had encountered. Obviously having worked in Los Alamos he was concerned that maybe they had something to be concerned about. He was curious both for himself and for his employees,” Burgess said.
Over the next week, Burgess said Los Alamos Fire Department and NNSA responded at various times and did a couple of tests and ultimately it was determined that the glassware that was discovered had remnants of plutonium on it and that the crucible was a bowl made out of lead.
“And so obviously it was radioactive and lead being a hazardous material having hazardous constituents, there were some concerns about worker safety and public safety and work was ceased and we started to look at what we should do in response,” he said. “Given the quit claim deed and the liability of the federal government to make sure the area was cleaned up if anything was discovered, I had conversations with NNSA because of their expertise in working in these environments but also because of their liability and they brought folks out on site.”
He said NNSA took the material back to LANL for further testing to see exactly what it was and that they also began a records review to see why the County was encountering the material in an area that had been determined to be clean and where they had performed several years of work.
“The end result of that conversation was that NNSA recommended that we that we fence off the site. There was some fencing in place but there was an opening at the back of the site that could be accessed from folks that might be hiking in the area and so NNSA came out and completed the fencing to prevent entry. They also put up a barrier around the trench itself and hung placards indicating the potential for radioactive material being there,” Burgess said adding that NNSA also covered the dirt that was excavated from the trench with traps and Visqueen plastic and weighted it down to prevent that dirt from becoming airborne and potentially spreading any contamination elsewhere. In addition, an existing air monitoring station on DP Road almost adjacent to the site was turned back on and a second air sampling monitor was brought in to ensure that there was no spread of contamination.
NNSA also offered to do a bio-assessment for any County staff, the contractor and his staff, and the first responders that came out on the scene to determine if they had been exposed to anything. Burgess said eight people participated in that process which involved a multi-week urine test to determine what might be taken up in the body. He was informed that none of those tested showed any signs of contamination.
“At that time, there were basically two concerns the County had. One was why was the material there, especially after it had been cleaned and how would this impact the needs of the developer on the north side of the street because in this area we don’t have any options for servicing that lot with sewer. If you go further east on DP Road all the existing businesses are on septic systems and that was not going to work for a 60+ unit housing facility. We had conversations with NNSA at that time on both of those issues. How are we going to clean this up and how can we maintain our schedule for the developer’s needs,” Burgess said.
He said initially NNSA was willing to bring out some of the Radiological Assistance Program team to respond assess County personnel.
“They offered, in addition to having put the fence in and covering the site, to then have people stand by while our contractor would attempt a couple of other excavations to see if we could find an alternate route for our sewer line,” Burgess said.
He said the County was still interested in putting the sewer line in order for the developer to achieve their certificate of occupancy by Dec. 31.
“But also in our conversations we recognized that any cleanup of these materials would likely be an action that’s going to take longer than the timeline necessary for the developer and also monies not yet identified. During this same time the New Mexico Environment Department was contacted by NNSA. They responded with a request for information – which NNSA did produce – giving some of the history. Obviously our discussion regarding materials discovered, maps and other records review was provided to NMED and also copied to the County so that we understood as the owner of the property what was going on,” Burgess said. “We also set up since that time weekly meetings to discuss those projects so that all parties can be kept informed and there’s also a weekly report submitted to NMED.”
He said to progress on the construction timeline, NNSA offered their personnel to stand by and take samples of materials as the County excavated and also to offer guidance for those contractors involved in the excavation as far as personal protective equipment and other necessities to protect themselves from any potential contamination. Two months before we got back on site he said NNSA discover some more glassware and so stopped excavation there and then excavated in the area of the proposed new lift station as well.
“This excavation was destined to be 12 feet deep and during the excavation of that site, which is outside of what was considered the historic A-16-a lot, they got about 70 percent of the excavation done and then encountered some materials in a horizontal vein that were consistent along the edge of the trench. When that material was sampled, it was a wood-type material, but it did have embedded in it uranium and so was again a concern obviously for our contractor and his personnel and for the potential success of our overall project. In each of these cases the sampling has indicated that both the plutonium and uranium is affixed to the material that it’s been found on. For example, with the glassware, the plutonium was affixed to the glass. It did not rub off on their sampling nor had it rubbed off on the contractor’s equipment,” Burgess said. “And that is an important aspect as it means that it is not likely to spread or aerosolize or get into the surrounding environment due to the fact that it sticks to these materials. That also meant that the contractor’s equipment could be removed and then moved to another location and was not going to contaminate any future location that equipment was being used for.”
Burgess said Material Disposal Area B occupied the A-16-a parcel and that records show that when it was cleaned and presented to the County there had been heavy remediation to the east including the removal of several feet of surface soils.
“The area to the west had no historical indication of being used as a waste location and therefore instead of removing all the soils there were several core samples were taken that turned up negative at the time. We do know that going east it has gotten significantly heavier treatment and going west it got less treatment. In reviewing the history as I understand it, there’s an unknown deposition of these wastes in the area because it was not indicated on any of the prior materials. However, obviously we’ve encountered something that appears to mimic what would normally have been found in an MDA B so it suggests that there were additional waste sites or it was an extension of the overall waste site that simply wasn’t mapped. It is unknown exactly what the origin of material would be at this time,” he said.
That’s important, Burgess said, because it’s going to inform the future efforts to clean it up and inform the County as to future development for a second development, The Bluffs, which is adjacent to it and has been sold to the same developer as the one developing the Canyon Walk Apartments.
“History would show that for The Bluffs area it was never a waste location, but it was a coal storage location at one time in the past. The A-9 area was a fuel storage area so those uses don’t indicate that there would be waste on these sites. However, obviously there’s a concern that someone could excavate and discover something that’s simply unknown at this time,” Burgess said.
He said the developer is still pursuing the construction of the Canyon Walk Apartments at this time and that 2021 is when they intend to develop The Bluffs. He said the County approached the developer and negotiated the idea that the County could run the sewer line across their property at The Bluffs site.
“They agreed because it would be under a planned parking lot and that’s currently what we’re attempting to do to make sure we achieve the calendar requirements of having everything functional on the apartments on the A-9 site,” Burgess said. “We considered a realignment of the sewer line we were trenching for and then at the same time, our contractor was uncomfortable continuing to do excavation given the fact that they had already discovered waste in a number of areas and they have limited equipment which essentially if contaminated would put them out of business. They were unwilling to return to continue excavations.”
He said the County found itself in a bit of a time crunch in knowing that similar to all the work that was done on A-16-a and all of the parcels throughout the County both on and off Lab property, to get contractors familiar with and trained to operate in environments that may include hazardous materials.
“We asked NNSA if they would consider hiring or tasking one of their existing contractors with the completion of our necessary excavation so that we can service the Canyon Walk Apartments in accordance with their necessary schedule. I have received confirmation of that from NNSA – they will perform that excavation for us. In fact they have already mobilized to the area and intend to begin that further excavation of the lift station area next week and in doing so, once complete, we’re hoping to have that done before August because that’s when we intend to come back in and connect in the sewer line to the new lift station,” Burgess said. “At present the plan is for NNSA to excavate the remainder of what needs to be excavated and then the County will go back in and hook up the necessary infrastructure. Then we’ll backfill the entire area with clean fill so that there is a buffer around this new infrastructure that will be useful in the ultimate cleanup of this area.”
He said the cleanup plan is not fully developed and that the funding source is unclear as well as who between NNSA and Environmental Management would be responsible to do the ultimate cleanup.
“Given the time frame in which that would occur and the amount of money which would have to be put together to get that done, we chose to pursue getting the infrastructure installed and then come back and have further conversations about the cleanup call,” Burgess said. “As I mentioned, the clean backfill around our new infrastructure would then give kind of a cushion or a barrier that when that ultimate cleanup occurs, we would not have to disturb this new infrastructure and they could all be functional for the apartment complex across the street. I cannot report today what the long-term cleanup plans are going to be because they’re still being discussed, however that is obviously a continued interest of the County and in conversation with both NMED and NNSA that’s something we’re going to be looking at here in the near future to determine.”
RCLC Chair Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal said the RCLC reached out to NNSA and they couldn’t make this meeting.
“We did originally have them on the schedule but they couldn’t be here so we thought we’d at least have Los Alamos County at this point,” he said.
Vasquez said he reached out to NNSA in April to present at Friday’s meeting for both the DP Road topic and a proposed venting project.
“I spoke to multiple people and I was informed that due to ongoing COVID crisis, that they were having trouble finding the proper people for that conversation and also when it came to the topic of what’s going on at TA-21 with the findings that Harry just gave us. The property does belong to the County so they felt it was most appropriate that the County have first say on what’s going on there,” Vasquez said.
Tom Allen, A builder/contractor from Taos County told Burgess he was curious as to why NMED did not stop work on the construction of the apartments. Burgess replied that NNSA had been in communication with NMED and had not received a stop work order. Allen said he brought crews into Los Alamos County from the Santa Fe County Fire Department during the Cerro Grande Fire that ended up in contaminated areas. He said he is a bit of a skeptic in terms of LANL and NNSA and what they say and would much prefer to trust NMED and their evaluation of the situation.
“It feels a little bit like the fox and the henhouse type situation in terms of NNSA coming in and saying everything is fine,” Allen said. He asked Burgess if there is a possibility of other groups coming in to check things out and make sure things are being done in a way to satisfy NMED. Burgess said he is not an expert in that field and not an environmental contractor so he has limited ability to speculate on that.
“However I can only say that NMED has been involved and has not yet requested such additional input. We find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. We’re not involved in that. We just want the property to be able to utilize it for the community’s needs so we rely on NMED to verify anything that is being reported,” Burgess said.